It is fascinating how many of our modern travel routes often have important historical roots. One great local example is that of Corbett’s Crossing northeast of Cody along Highway 14A.
The area has long provided easy access to the Stinking Water River [renamed Shoshone River in 1902] and a natural, shallow ford. The safe crossing funneled human and animal traffic through the corridor for centuries prior to European settlement.
Beginning in the late 1870s drovers moving herds of cattle into the Big Horn Basin from the north used the primitive crossing to safely ford the river and reach the scattered early ranch settlements beyond.
In 1880 John Corbett and Vic Arland established a trading post along an established Indian travel route on Trail Creek just a few miles northwest of Cody. It was the first mercantile establishment in the Big Horn Basin and catered to trappers, cowboys, itinerant hunters and resident Native Americans. A few years later they moved their business a few miles east along Cottonwood Creek.
In 1884 the partners established yet another trading post on Meeteetse Creek called Arland and subsequently sold their properties on Trail Creek and Cottonwood Creek to some Frenchmen who ran cattle and used it as a remote hunting outpost.
That same year John Corbett also built a roadhouse at the old river crossing to better facilitate trading and logistics along the bumpy stage roads from Red Lodge and Billings. A wooden bridge had recently been constructed over the river at the old ford to allow local cattlemen easier access to the markets and railroads in Montana.
In 1884 the commissioners of the newly formed Fremont County declared the wagon route across the Stinking Water at Corbett to be a county road, one of the first in the Big Horn Basin.
North of Corbett the wagon road divided, one route heading northwest over the Skull Creek divide towards the Clarks Fork and the other route heading northeast over Polecat Bench towards Pryor Gap and on to Billings.
Corbett’s roadhouse contained a saloon, a small store, corrals and primitive accommodations for those traveling on the stagecoach. It was an important gathering place long before the town of Cody was ever imagined. Early homesteaders threw community dances at Corbett where neighbors had the rare opportunity to socialize. Local cowboys did their share of gambling and carousing at the saloon as well.
The bridge at Corbett was washed out by high water on numerous occasions. Due to its importance to local trade and travel it was always quickly replaced.
The arrival of the railroad to Cody in 1901 made the little settlement in the river bottom obsolete, and Corbett’s trading post became only a location on old maps.
In 1904 the Bureau of Reclamation situated the diversion dam and tunnel for the Garland Canal a mile downstream from the location of the roadhouse and named the irrigation structures after Corbett, thereby keeping the name attached to the landscape.
With the construction of the modern highway the original site of Corbett’s trading post on the north side of the river was basically obliterated due to large scale earth moving. Today the road runs directly over the landing along the river where the site was located.
Although it is now gone, John Corbett’s trading post at the crossing of the Stinking Water was an essential feature of our local geography that aided the early development of the entire Big Horn Basin.